When you bring the battle home, challenges for OEF/OIF veterans.
BATTLEMIND, like many words embedded in Army linguistics, is an acronym. Perhaps a little awkward, but clear and to the point. The Battlemind acronym, developed at Walter Reed Medical Center, was part of the post-deployment briefing and was designed to help soldiers better understand how their training and habits from the Army do not always transfer well into the civilian world. Several years ago, Battlemind was deemed no longer useful to the Army, but it remains very useful to me! I use it to help civilian clinicians to better understand veterans who walk in their doors. I also use it to help veterans understand why they feel and think so differently than their civilian counterparts. I’m using it now to demonstrate to you that many of the thoughts and behaviors that veterans experience are not necessarily due to PTSD, but to the training and experiences, they had in the military. Combat and non-combat veterans alike will see aspects of Battlemind in themselves. The acronym Battlemind represents ten combat skills that can lead to relationship problems and create adjustment challenges for veterans in the civilian world. So, let’s begin.
Buddies (cohesion) vs. Withdrawal
Unit cohesion, working together as a team is an essential part of military life. Your battle buddies are the people who keep you alive during combat. The bonds built in the military are very powerful. Particularly during combat, these relationships are essential to your very survival. When you leave the service, you may struggle to find that level of trust and interdependence in your civilian relationships. You may also be surrounded by people who can never understand your experiences, your ethos, and the things you have done and seen. This can lead to withdrawal. Your spouse and your friends may see and maybe comment on your withdrawal, but you may just feel like no one really understands.
Accountability vs. Controlling
When in the military, accountability is everything. You have to be accountable for every piece of equipment you are issued, every task you perform, and your time is always accounted for. Failure to be accountable has serious and often group consequences during training. Lack of accountability in combat can lead to catastrophic ends. When entering the civilian world, it can seem that there is very little accountability for anything. Maybe your kids don’t do their chores, your coworkers slip out of work early, or your partner neglects to pick up the mail. For veterans, these acts are seen as a lack of accountability, which can set off alarms in the back of their minds. Here’s where the controlling comes in. By controlling the behaviors of those around you, the veteran feels the security that things have been done correctly and in a timely manner.
Targeted Aggression vs. Inappropriate Aggression
Targeted aggression is clearly an important tool in the service member’s toolkit, for some MOS’s more than others. This skill involves learning to constantly assess and react quickly to threats. This ability is essential in military combat, but in the civilian world can lead to bar fights and other altercations.
Tactical Awareness vs. Hypervigilance
Keeping your head on swivel is part of military life. Being aware of your surroundings, and looking for threats, is another essential skill needed for deployments. After you receive your DD214, you will likely still be checking the entrances, planning escape routes, and scanning crowds for possible threats. This may become a problem for veterans when that awareness turns into hypervigilance which then leads to avoidance of public places like stores, concerts, or even large family events.
Lethally Armed vs. Locked and Loaded
I often ask veterans what they named their M4 or whatever weapon they carried during deployment. While deployed, your weapon is such an extension of yourself that people report feeling naked without one when they get home. Being unarmed can make a veteran feel vulnerable and this further increases the discomfort they feel in public places like airports, where they cannot carry. Most veterans I know keep at least one firearm in their homes. I’m sure we all understand that keeping firearms locked and loaded at home is a danger for veterans who have suicidal ideation.
Emotional Control vs. Anger/Detachment
Keeping a lid on your emotions is key to operational success. Suck it up and drive on becomes a way of life for many veterans. Controlling emotions over a period of time can lead to emotional illiteracy, where you have trouble understanding and expressing feelings. It can also lead to anger or detachment. Often veterans feel more comfortable expressing anger, instead of root emotions. Anger feels powerful, while sadness can make you feel weak or vulnerable. Some veterans do not show any emotions and have trouble even identifying emotions in themselves or others. Detachment often shows up in relationships where the veteran might be accused of being a “robot” or withholding emotions from his or her partner. Anger and detachment both lead to problems managing relationships.
Mission Security (OPSEC) vs. Secretiveness
Information is a commodity in the military that is distributed inequitably throughout the chain of command. There are things you may know as a Sergeant that you cannot share with those lower in rank. You may also feel restricted from sharing your military experiences with civilian friends and families. OPSEC is a part of military training that can bleed into civilian life. Often veterans find themselves being secretive about what they are thinking and doing throughout the day. This secretiveness can be seen as strange and unnecessary to your civilian partners. Partners asking for a full after-action report of your day can seem onerous to a veteran. Lack of honest sharing can lead to trust and intimacy problems in veterans’ relationships.
Individual Responsibility vs. Guilt
Keeping the person to the left and right of you alive is your responsibility in the military. Returning home from combat when some of your buddies did not is a heavy load to bear for many veterans. Feelings of survivor’s guilt or Monday morning quarterbacking events can cause veterans to question the decisions they made in the heat of combat or orders they gave as leaders. Those feelings can lead to ruminating over past events and even a lack of trust in your ability to make future decisions.
Non-Defensive (combat) Driving vs. Aggressive Driving
Nearly half of service member deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan were the result of IEDs.* Driving in combat zones is one of the most dangerous activities a service member might experience. Combat driving may involve quickly changing lanes, driving in the middle of the road, and focusing on the possibility of dangers on the side of the road. Returning from combat, veterans may continue to “combat drive” once they return home. This can lead to police interactions and an increased risk of car accidents.
Discipline and Ordering vs. Conflict
Military life involves a clear chain of command where discipline and order are the core of the culture. This is in stark contrast to the civilian world where people are inconsistent and undisciplined. Frustration in the lack of order can boil up within a veteran and lead to conflict. Even an unorganized line at in-store checkout can make a veteran feel on edge. Family life is quite often chaotic and disordered. In their families, spouses and children may perceive the veteran as being rigid and unreasonable when rules are not followed as ordered.
BATTLEMIND explains how your military experience and training can lead to conflicts and challenges in your civilian life. Veterans often avoid counseling because they don’t want to appear weak or broken, they don’t think it will be helpful, or they want to keep a lid on combat memories. Many veterans struggle daily with problems sleeping, dealing with large crowds, or having anxiety during idle time. Many of these challenges can be easily alleviated with short-term counseling. Seeking counseling is not a form of weakness, it is the recognition that you don’t go on a mission alone.